Columbia River dams revived

Tribes get shut out of new plan touted as good for fish

  • The Washington state government is considering 11 potential sites for new reservoirs to store water from the Columbia River. Dave Billingsley ranches in Moses Coulee, shown here; the Coulee could be flooded to create a 20-mile long reservoir.

    AP World Wide

Water politics in Washington state seem to have been turned inside-out: Environmental groups say new dams might help endangered salmon, even as some water-hungry farmers say they could make do without more dams. And Indian tribes — after years of having a voice in managing the state’s rivers — have been left out in the cold.

For a quarter of a century, new water projects on the Columbia River have been stalled over concerns that they might harm salmon. But during the past two months, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, D, signed two bills that create a new $200 million fund to build new dams and other water projects.

Two-thirds of the money will go to a program to build new "off-channel" reservoirs — located near, but not on, the Columbia — and fill them with water from the river. About 30 percent of that stored water will be reserved to boost flows for fish during dry periods. The other third of the money will go to improve water efficiency on farms.

The law also gives a new duty to the state Department of Ecology: "We’ve been asked to get in the water-supply business by the Legislature," says Gerry O’Keefe, the Columbia River coordinator for the Washington Department of Ecology.

That mandate could be at sharp odds with one of the agency’s traditional missions: protecting river flows for salmon. And as the plan moves forward, the Yakama Nation and other Indian tribes are demanding to know why they were shut out of last-minute negotiations.

Delayed development

The bills’ biggest beneficiaries will be farmers in central and eastern Washington, many of whom are still waiting for water from the federal government’s half-finished Columbia Basin Project. The Bureau of Reclamation began the project in the 1930s, but by the 1970s, it was obvious that dams for irrigation and hydroelectric generation were harming salmon runs.

In 1980, the Department of Ecology set a "minimum flow" level to protect salmon. In the ensuing years, the National Marine Fisheries Service consistently argued that any additional water diversions would likely harm fish and violate the Endangered Species Act, and construction on the project halted.

That left more than 350 farmers without the "project water" they were counting on. Instead, they pumped groundwater from the underlying aquifer; its level has now dropped so much that they can barely reach what’s left. Clark Kagele, who grows potatoes near Odessa, says, "We’ve got farmers up here that are just in absolute panic because they have a life’s full of investment (in their farms) and their wells are failing."

In 2001, Gov. Gary Locke, D, tried to break the impasse. His Columbia River Initiative was still grinding forward when Gov. Gregoire took office in January 2005. Last summer, she turned to the Legislature for a solution. Heavy negotiations produced the two bills, which both passed nearly unanimously.

The conservation groups American Rivers and the Washington Environmental Council endorsed the final plan because any new reservoirs would only siphon more water from the river during high-flow winter months. "You're storing water during periods of higher flow when the river can withstand that," says American Rivers’ Rob Masonis. A third of the water put into storage could then be used to augment river flows during drier parts of the year. "That," says Mo McBroom with the Washington Environmental Council, "is going to result in a net increase in streamflows."

Still, both groups say money would be far better spent to improve water efficiency and store water in aquifers, rather than to build new dams. And even some farmers say that the proposed dams may never get built, because they won’t pass the federal environmental review process, or because they’ll fail to attract federal funding in an era when the U.S. government is running an $8.3 trillion deficit.

The Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association has proposed using the new funds to improve water efficiency on farms, then using the conserved water to meet new demand. Darryll Olsen, who represents the group, says its members have realized that, even with the state’s support, "there is a higher probability that we’d witness the second coming of Jesus Christ than that there’d be a new storage reservoir built."

Looking for the water

The plan has come under intense criticism from Columbia River Indian tribes, especially the Yakama Nation. Several tribes hold senior water rights on the river, which they use to guarantee adequate flows for salmon, and they question whether enough water is available for new projects.

"People are assuming that we can carve off the top of the hydrograph" — the winter peak in the wave-shaped graph of the river’s annual flow — "and store it in a reservoir somewhere," says Bob Heinith, a biologist for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents several tribes. "But the peak of the hydrograph is what the salmon really need in terms of their migration and habitat."

Tribes are also angry that they had no say in the final bill. Since 1998, the Department of Ecology has consulted with tribes before approving new water development, but they were barred from final-hour negotiations between state legislators, the ecology department, and irrigation and environmental representatives.

Afterward, Yakama Tribal Council Chairman Louis Cloud wrote to Gov. Gregoire, saying that "excluding the Tribes ... from the bill negotiations harkens back to the acts of discrimination that led to the Boldt decision" — the 1974 court ruling affirming that the tribes’ fishing and water rights have the highest priority on the river. On March 15, Gregoire dispatched Jay Manning, the head of the Department of Ecology, to meet with the tribal government. Lavina Washines, who replaced Chairman Cloud on March 22, says the tribal council is still considering its response: "The saddest part is they come here after (Gregoire) signs the bill and want to sit around the table and discuss it. I believe that’s unjust."

 The author is an HCN associate editor.

This article was made possible with support from the William C. Kenney Watershed Protection Foundation and the Jay Kenney Foundation.

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